Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

On patrol with the pirate hunters

Helicopter footage of the Turkish warship

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, On board the TGC Gokova

A Russian tanker which has just arrived in Kenya's Mombasa port bears the scars of a recent clash with pirates.

Below the wheelhouse there is a window missing and a dirty great stain where it used to be.

The damage was caused by a rocket-propelled grenade, just one of many daily attacks that threaten shipping throughout the region.

As the Russian ship docked, three cargo vessels chartered by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) were heading out to sea - the start of a seven-day voyage towards Mogadishu.

These days most freighters stay well clear of the Somali coast, but these ships are carrying vital food aid for some three million people.

Damage caused to a Russian tanker by rocket fire.
Pirates hit the Russian tanker with a rocket-propelled grenade
The journey will take these three ships 500 miles (804km) through what is now considered the most dangerous water in the world, and such is the threat from pirates, the Nato warships will stay within 500m (547yds) of the convoy throughout the entire journey.

We were aboard the Turkish frigate Gokova, one of four Nato warships now patrolling the Somali coastline.

Usually the 240 crew of this ship are on duty in the Mediterranean as part of Nato's Standing Maritime Group 2.

The group includes HMS Cumberland, the Italian flagship Durand De La Penne, and the Greek frigate, Themistokles.

They will stay in the region until the end of the year at the request of UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.

The crew of the Gokova are on permanent high alert. There are special forces on board and a helicopter crew on 24 hour standby, ready to respond to distress signals they might receive.

The commander of the frigate, Ender Kahya, said usually the helicopter acts as sufficient deterrent. Pirates have been known to abandon their attacks when it appears overhead.

Strategy rethink

But the seizure of the Saudi super-tanker Sirius Star shows that the new brigands of the high sea are getting braver, more ambitious and much more skilled at what they do.

We were held for eight days until the company that owns the ship paid the ransom
Captain Anwar Ahmed Siddiqui

There is evidence they have staged "dummy" attacks to lure in warships while another gang hits the real target, further away.

They have called in false distress signals to confuse shipping, and so co-ordinated are the clans that run these franchises, they rotate regularly the ports from which they operate.

With the technology in the bridge, the pirates are surprisingly easy to spot - it is not normal to see a small skiff travelling at 20 knots, hundreds of miles out to sea.

They appear as small dots on the radar, usually in groups of three. The mother ships - which they use to refuel - masquerade as fishing dhows but often there is no radio contact with the crew on board.

The Gokova's lieutenant, Mehmet Elyurek, thinks the high number of attacks seen in recent weeks will begin to tail away as winter weather sets in.

"They need fair winds to board these ships," he said. "High seas will disrupt their operations.

Crew on the bridge of TGC Gokova
Pirate vessels can be seen from miles away from the ship's bridge
"I think they are probably seizing as many ships as they can, before it's too late."

But if the attacks do not drop off then surely Nato - and the European force that is now on route - will need to rethink their strategy.

One solution suggested by mariners is to stop the pirates leaving port.

"It is possible," said Cdr Kahya. "It is a change in tactics that would need to come from higher authorities - say from Brussels - but of course it is possible to blockade ports, if we had to."

Aid risk

Without this naval escort the three ships that left Mombasa would not have sailed.

One of them, the Victoria, was hijacked in June as it left Mogadishu. Captain Anwar Ahmed Siddiqui said he had spotted the attack early, but his ship can only reach 10 knots at full speed and he was powerless to stop them boarding.

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"They came from all directions," he said. "When the ship is fully loaded she sits very low in the water, so it's easy to put a ladder against the rail.

"They were carrying AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades. We were held for eight days until the company that owns the ship paid the ransom."

And that is why the WFP would find it impossible to charter enough ships to carry their cargo without Nato's help.

Lemma Jembere, the logistics officer for WFP Mombasa, said there was a period in October, when the Canadian navy left them, that they were only able to move some 9,000 tonnes, nowhere near enough to feed three million people.

"These days it is more expensive to move cargo to Mogadishu," he said. "And that's if we can find a crew that will dare to travel."

And it is not just the food aid to Somalia that is threatened by the piracy.

Mombasa is an important hub. If bulk carriers are delayed or fail to reach the port, then aid operations in Kenya, Uganda and southern Sudan are also at risk.

For the moment, Nato keeps the supply flowing, but all parties know this is a short-term answer to a long-term problem.

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